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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — Ahead of the 86th Iron Bowl on Saturday, student veterans from both competing schools, Auburn and Alabama, hike 151 miles in three days – raising awareness of the ongoing veteran suicide epidemic.

Nearly 80 veterans and their support teams stepped off of the University of Alabama’s Walk of Champions Wednesday morning and rucked (military jargon for hike, travel by foot carrying a backpack) from Bryant-Denny Stadium to Jordan-Hare Stadium. This group carried the game ball that will be used in the 2021 Iron Bowl.

“Unfortunately, the veteran population, 17 die by suicide each day in America,” Marine Veteran and three-time ruck participant, Slade Salmon said. “I venture to say most veterans know someone who is no longer with us because of suicide.”

To honor each of their military brothers and sisters who have taken their own life since serving, ruck participants carry dog tags with their respective names engraved.

Though their message is a somber one, the pack of veterans trekking across Central Alabama make each trip memorable. To lift the mood and push through sore feet, participants often pack speakers to play music, snacks and other activities.

“It kind of feels like we’re back in the military,” Student Veteran Association President at Auburn University, Clay Buchanan said. “We get together from Auburn and Alabama – even though we didn’t know each other before, we become a big family. A lot of comradery. We’re remembering those we have lost and those who are struggling but we’re having a good time doing it.”

On Thanksgiving Day, those on Operation Iron Ruck stopped at a small church in Deatsville, Alabama for a feast. Darlene Coyle with Three Hots and a Cot, said a sponsor and partner in the ruck, those part of the cross-state caravan are welcomed for a hot Thanksgiving dinner before they complete their journey. She said participants’ families often meet them down there.

Operation Iron Ruck concludes Saturday morning as they arrive in Auburn. Coyle said that former Auburn Football Coach and current Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville will be there to greet them on arrival.